A Pilot's Perspective.

By Barry Meek.

June 2010

The Beginning and the Ending

              In the beginning, there is the walk-around.  A quality time the pilot spends with his airplane, ensuring it is ready to fly.

              On a warm, sunny day, the procedure is sometimes more thorough than it is when it’s cold and wet.  We all know how important the walk-around is, yet the longer we own or fly the same airplane, the more complacent we tend to become.  The hinge bolts on the rudder always look the same.  The brakes were recently replaced so there’s no need for a close inspection.  The engine has never used more than a quart of oil in ten hours …. you get the idea.  Many items on the walk-around can be skipped or given a cursory look.  It’s all done in the interest of saving time.  When we find ourselves a bit behind schedule then the time is made with shortcuts.

              It took a near disaster before I made the decision to be careful and spend all the time needed to do a proper walk-around before every flight.  I was working on a summer contract, flying about eight hours a day, sometimes a bit more.  By the end of July, I had flown that airplane for about 300 hours.  I knew it well.  One day while re-fueling, I got in a hurry, and left one of the gas caps off.  Unseen up on the top of the wing, the cap sat beside the filler hole, and fell off as I taxied to the runway.  About 1.5 hours later, while low over a field, the engine coughed, then quit.  There’s not much time when you’re only 200 feet  AGL;  no time to switch tanks or try for the restart.  In fact it takes about 20 seconds before you’re on the ground, and still not knowing why.  Lucky for me, there was a fairly good spot below which I was able to land on, with only slight damage to the gear.  That little incident cost me a few hundred dollars, which although my employer graciously offered to cover, I paid from my pocket.  It was my fault, and no one else was obligated to pay.   Had I done even a partial walk-around prior to departure from the fuel pump, that incident wouldn’t have happened.  Checking my airplane is now something I do before every flight, not just the first one in the morning. 

              I’m reminded of it and understand I’m not the only one who has overlooked a checklist item when I see and hear of other incidents.  One day, I found an expensive flashlight on the taxi way.  Another time, a leather jacket was lying on the ramp.  I almost ran over a piece of an exhaust pipe in the run-up area.  Once I even came across a student pilots’ supplies while I was taxiing for departure at a small airport.  There was an E-6B computer, a couple of pens, a flight supplement, even a knee board lying on the pavement.  Off in the grass an unfolded VNC chart was blowing away.  No planes had departed in the past five or ten minutes, so I wondered when this pilot was going to miss all his gear.  No doubt he would eventually remember leaving it on the horizontal stabilizer of his rented airplane while doing his walk-around.  

              Other stories, perhaps urban legends, talk about the small plane departing towing the cement tie-down still on the tail wheel.  There was apparently an incident involving the tow-bar attached to the nose wheel of a small Cessna when it lifted off.  That pilot had to be concerned about the rattling noise and the difficulty with the steering.  I’ve seen cowl doors open, sometimes the oil pouring out of the filler cap, gust-locks still installed on the elevators, even a twin jet attempting to take off with one engine shut down.  Some companies prefer their pilots taxi on one engine to save fuel, then start the other just prior to entering the active.    Some funny stories, others end in tragedy, but all are avoidable. 

              Some time ago there was a report published that said most accidents happen within ten miles from home.  If that’s true in motor vehicles, then there’s likely some similar statistic in airplane travel, at least in general aviation.  Fatigue can kill you, and the closer you get to the end of a flight, the more the tendency is to relax.  Having read that information may have saved me a lot of grief on many occasions.  At the end of a long, hard day of flying, as I approach my home airport and fall into familiar procedures, I have been known to relax a bit.  But that’s precisely the time to sit up, take a deep breath and get focused.  Approaching any airport, home or not, is a good time to be on top of the game.  With the knowledge that this is a good place for an accident to happen, I usually summon some reserves from a part of me that’s not yet asleep, and apply everything I have to getting safely on the ground and to the hangar.  And it’s particularly important when flying a tailwheel aircraft.  They must be “flown” until you’re parked and tied down.  Unfortunately, I relaxed a bit on a day when the winds were stronger than I figured on, and at a low speed, was unable to stay ahead of a ground loop.  Lucky for me no one was watching, and lucky for my employer there was no damage to his airplane. 

              To me, the work begins and the flight starts when the hangar door is opened.  It was pointed out to me once that the passengers get nervous when they see the pilot using checklists.  Many smaller operators and private pilots tend to go through their checks easily and quickly from memory.  If you’re one of those, and you’re honest with yourself, you will recall departures with the carb heat selected ON, the cowl flaps closed, the trim not set exactly in the take-off position, or any number of other small oversights.  Most items on their own can be adjusted quickly and/or will not be a big deal.  But isn’t it nice knowing that when you advance the throttles, you’re really ready to go?  At that point, I’m looking ahead, not thinking back to “what did I miss?” 

              Coming home, the end of a flight, can be a time of great satisfaction.  When everything has gone right, or when I’ve overcome problems that crop up and we’re safely on the tarmac, at the exact time predicted, with the airplane running perfectly, the proper reserve in the tanks, it’s all a good feeling.  It’s where the story ends, and the tales begin.   The excitement and satisfaction I get from flying hasn’t gone away.  My private flying time started in 1972,  commercial flying many years later, in 1998.  Frankly, there are not that many hours in my log book, but every reason that every pilot has expressed as his need to fly, I can point to them as my reasons too.   When an airplane passes overhead, I turn my eyes skyward.  When I drive by an airport or float-plane base, I stop and watch the arrivals.  There’s no form of transportation or recreation that can compare with flying.  You can’t say that about driving. 

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